Scrupulosity in Children

“Not the most felicitous image of Our Lord”

Following upon my recent post about scrupulosity in general, I thought it might be helpful to share some particular thoughts about dealing with this cross in children. It seems that there are few resources that speak directly to this topic. This post, like the previous one, will not be comprehensive, but I hope it helps a bit.

I’ll never forget a vignette that an older religious sister, who is very dear to me, shared from her childhood. Whenever she did something naughty, her mother would tell her to go stand in front of the family’s Sacred Heart image and talk to Jesus about it. This led to her not only repenting of the bad she had done, but developing a great love for the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In other words, it led her to a more intimate relationship with the Lord — and surely her religious vocation arose from that encounter.

One of the fundamental problems that a person with scrupulosity has is an erroneous image of the Lord. I chose the above photo of the apse mosaic from the National Shrine — once described by a priest-acquaintance as “not the most felicitous image of Our Lord” — deliberately. Children, especially, have vivid imaginations; alas, it seems that for some of us, at least, our imaginations dull as we get older. This is generally not a problem for children. They readily see imaginary friends, can construct elaborate battle scenes with their toy soldiers, know just when their baby doll needs a diaper change, and so forth.

A child who has an inclination to scrupulosity very likely has formed an image of the Lord that does not coincide with reality — indeed, that is quite harsh. How this image formed is sometimes anyone’s guess; it could be due to the his or her other character flaws, such as a propensity toward negativity, fatalistic thinking, or because of a general sensitivity and/or fastidiousness. Perhaps there was some trauma in their early years that contributed to the distorted image. We can speculate all day, and in any case, this consideration may be better left to psychologists.

The point that I would like to make, however, is that that religious sister’s mother may have been on to something in the method of discipline she chose, which helped the future sister to form a positive and warm image of Jesus in her mind and heart — indeed, an image that corresponded to the love and tenderness that He has for her and that did not over-exaggerate his judgment or wrath.

Therefore, because of the power of imagination that a child possesses and the distortions that may have entered in for a scrupulous child in connection with how he or she sees the Lord, I would propose that in addition to the general guidance I offered in my previous post, parents might also select a suitable image of Jesus and encourage the child to pray with it. The question remains: What is a suitable image? With trepidation, I will make some suggestions.

Unsuitable.

Here I would like to go where angels fear to tread: I would like to offer my opinions on the artistic merits of various images. There is no accounting for taste — we all know that. Beyond subjective taste, there are considerations of objective beauty, however. And there is also that thing called “reality” that we also have to face: images that over-emphasize one aspect to the expense of others are simply not suitable for developing a correct perception of the Lord.

The above example of a very American-looking “smiling Jesus” (Europeans and Latin Americans wouldn’t show their teeth…) is what I would consider to be a very unsuitable image for helping a child to develop a proper intimacy with him. (My own vivid imagination is now stoking fear that I might know people who have this image and who are now upset with me. Sigh. Anyway, let’s continue…) I will explain more fully in a moment. But first, another unsuitable image:

More people upset with me.

Images like the above do try to express important truths: in the former, that Jesus is happy and approachable; in the latter, that he cares about all that we do and will even help us with it. But images like these also lack any substantial reference to the reason that Christ came into this world: to suffer and die for our sins. Yes, there is a cross imposed upon the second image — but it’s not at all obvious why. Did Christ die for baseball? And what is with the pixie dust?

What I am trying to propose is that a more classic and serious image of the Lord is what is needed to help guide a child — or anyone, really — aright. It must be clear: classic and serious do not exclude the concepts of love and tenderness. But Christ will be our judge and he did die for our sins. After the resurrection, he still had his wounds. He offers us his mercy now but if we do not avail ourselves of it we will face his justice. In a word: a good image of Jesus for us to meditate on will try to capture that “both/and” dynamic of our faith: mercy and justice; love and vengeance; etc. In this connection I would like to propose two possible images.

A little child shall lead them.

The first is a decent-quality image of the Holy Infant of Prague (whether a statue or some sort of framed graphic depiction). Admittedly, this image is not a universal favorite; some people find it simply odd or precious. But there is no question that it is a big part of traditional Catholic devotion and is a miraculous image. Attached to it is a promise from our Lord: “The more you honor me, the more I will bless you.”

But why this image? The Holy Infant displays a serenity and confidence, but in the form of a small child. Children can relate to this child who came to save them. He has the regalia of a king who will also be judge. But he has the peace and strength of one who can forgive and show love. He holds the globe in his hands — “He’s got the whole world in his hands”. His arm is raised in blessing.

Children who gaze upon the Holy Infant could easily imagine what it must have been like for Jesus to be their age and therefore to have to confront the fears and difficulties they have. And then, seeing his placid strength might also help them to lay down their own struggles at his feet; after all, even as a child he held the whole world in his hands.

As a largely non-practicing Catholic when I was a child, I do not recall ever having seen this image. It is one that I encountered later in life, and only recently came to appreciate more fully. Maybe I am off-base in my assessment, but I really do think it could help a child who struggles with scrupulous tendencies.

Another image:

The Apostleship of Prayer Sacred Heart

There are many fine-quality Sacred Heart images to choose from. The above one may be a touch saccharine, but I think it could still be of benefit, as it once was for me. First of all, our Lord is beckoning the viewer to himself — indeed, to his heart. But that heart is surrounded by thorns and crowned with a cross: in other words, our Lord is not offering cheap grace but grace born of love and suffering — love and suffering for you and for me.

Second, the expression on his face is tender but strong. Again, though I could possibly make the point more clearly or concisely if I had more time to write and edit, what I am trying to say is that images like “smiling Jesus” or “baseball Jesus” implicitly exclude the concepts of judgment and justice that are inherent to our Lord. In the above Sacred Heart, Christ is tender and inviting, but the invitation does have strings attached: the viewer is offered the grace of making his or her heart like unto Christ’s.

* * *

In conclusion: the solution for a child who suffers from scrupulosity should not involve going to the extreme of denying truths about who Jesus is. Yes, he is a just judge. Yes, his warnings about hellfire are true and will come to pass for those who fail to heed his message. But see how much he loves us! See how he suffered for you and for me! See how he wants to help! See how strong he is, able to deal with anything, for he has the whole world in his hands!

“For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things.” – 1 John 3:20

What using a good quality holy image will do is help guide and correct a child’s distorted imagination about the Lord, and then help him or her to connect intimately and personally with Him. There, in that meeting, they will find the grace of healing for their scrupulosity and learn that following Jesus is not a scary proposition akin to being a sinner in the hands of an angry God, but a great adventure of love in the company of the One who made that adventure possible.

In the event that anyone has persevered in reading to this point, you might disagree with my artistic evaluation, but hopefully the substance of what I said obtains: children can appreciate good quality and they can also handle things that are serious. Seek out images of Christ that more fully capture who he is — that project both love and strength.

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